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About this time four years ago, there was a smug confidence among the pundit class in Washington that Hillary Clinton was going to grind her way to a victory, Donald Trump was going to spend the rest of his life claiming he had been cheated of the White House and politics would find its equilibrium and forever swear off treating elections like a reality show.
Golly, were we wrong. Whatever the current polls say, we should consider this possible election outcome: Trump may well win a second term.
The President is back at the White House and reportedly on the mend after three nights in Walter Reed, recovering from COVID-19. He’s champing at the bit to get back out on the campaign trail himself. He says he wants to debate Joe Biden next week as planned, and he’s sending Vice President Mike Pence into tonight’s debate in Utah and tomorrow’s rally in Arizona ready to fight for votes.
Trump has been running for re-election since he won in 2016. Even in the window between his win and his Inauguration, he held “thank you” rallies. He started raising money and building a machine earlier than anyone in U.S. history. His takeover of the Republican Party started in the West Wing and the Republican National Committee, but he carefully installed loyalists in state parties and, in turn, shoveled GOP cash to them to build-out turnkey get-out-the-vote operations for him.
There is always a back-and-forth on which party has the upper hand when it comes to the use of tech, but no one can deny Trump has gone bigger on social-media spending. On Facebook and Google alone this year, Trump has spent $195 million to Biden’s $124 million, according to tracking done by Democratic firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.
Over the years, Trump has proven to be a Teflon contender, the ever-cascading series of scandals that have befallen his tenure never seeming to stick. Despite lagging Biden in national polls, he remains within striking distance in key states like North Carolina and Florida. Trump has had his hands on the wheel for the last four years. It’s been a bumpy ride, but for many voters, that’s been fine. The pre-coronavirus economy was humming along, Trump had alienated many global peers but hadn’t started any more wars, and the impeachment saga proved insufficient to remove Trump from office. His ability to shock and offend is now a rote part of American politics.
There are, of course, things Trump should be worried about. He’s been slipping with important blocs of voters since his first weeks in office. In the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, there comes this warning sign: before the debate in Cleveland, Trump was ahead of Biden by 23 points among white voters who lack a college degree; after the debate, that advantage shrunk to 14 points. Trump faced his biggest declines among older voters and suburban women, two groups he is now on pace to lose by more than points.
Trump came to power in large part by being underestimated. There’s a lot of that happening again, with observers looking at data points like white voters’ slide away from Trump and his financial troubles. But Trump is also not wrong when he asserts that many of the people who will vote for him — not MAGA loyalists, but those who will ultimately cast their ballot for him anyway — aren’t showing up in polls and are still as aggrieved as they were four years ago when they helped vote him into power.
On Nov. 3, if Trump easily carries a vault of important states like Texas and Georgia, plus holding on in Ohio, Michigan and Arizona on top of the states that are already expected to be in the bag with him, we could see a Trump win declared that night. Biden has said he will concede if he loses. But whereas Biden has a half-dozen routes to the needed 270 electoral votes, Trump’s path is one that requires everything falling into place and little margin for error.
A lot of Americans just want this election to be over. We’re all tired. And given that collective lack of sleep, we could also be as wrong as we were four years ago.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org